“The fight for cannabis freedom will continue and, given the divided nature of Congress, it will be long.”
By: Justin Strekal, BOWL PAC Founder
This Fourth of July, cannabis advocates and industry interests alike will likely make wisecracks about celebrating freedom and watching the sky light up with fireworks while it remains federally illegal to light up a joint.
But the rest of July offers the reform movement its first real opportunity for a Senate committee markup on a bill that addresses marijuana policy reform.
Readers of Marijuana Moment are likely already well-versed in the state of things, but to ensure that we’re all operating on the same page, here are some key data points to keep in mind ahead of Congress returning to session on July 10:
- Marijuana prohibition has been in effect for over 80 years and was initiated under explicitly racist justifications.
- The ‘state-legal’ cannabis industry has been around for less than three decades.
- Over 25 million Americans have been put into handcuffs for marijuana-related offenses since marijuana was declared a scheduled substance under the Controlled Substances Act (all schedules involve criminal penalties for possession without a physician’s prescription).
- Last year, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT), who chairs the National Republican Senatorial Committee, struck an agreement known as “SAFE-Plus” to include the SAFE Banking Act (modified with CDFI, MDI, and worker protections) and the Harnessing Opportunities by Pursuing Expungements Act. The agreement was ready to pass before being blocked by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY).
In the last few months advocates and industry interests have feverously debated and lobbied on how and when to push Congress to move forward in regards to SAFE-Plus. Here are some of the things being pushed regarding the compromise agreement:
- Industry interests are lobbying to expand the SAFE Banking Act to allow American cannabis companies to “uplist” their companies to be traded on stock markets.
- Criminal justice reform-minded individuals have pushed to dramatically expand the HOPE Act to provide more resources than drafted to state and local governments to cover the cost of facilitating expungements of criminal records related to cannabis.
- Equity advocates have identified a potentially devastating area of silence in the SAFE Banking Act which would allow banks to continue to discriminate against entrepreneurs with previous cannabis convictions due to existing “red flag” laws, which stands in contradiction to state programs like that in New York which aim to explicitly support impacted individuals to be owners in the emerging licensed cannabis industry.
The long-running joke in Washington, D.C. is that if everyone is unhappy about a compromise, then it is likely a pretty good compromise.
As one of the 70-plus percent of Americans who support the legalization of cannabis, it can feel somewhat absurd that Congress is still talking about narrow reforms like a safe harbor to bankers to engage in business relationships with distributors of a Schedule 1 substance rather than focusing on addressing the fact that a majority of Americans live in a legal-cannabis state.
But that is D.C. for you, a place where issues like campaign finance reform addressing the billions spent on elections and background checks for firearms sales preventing those with a violent history from obtaining a gun can have 80-90 percent public support and still fail to even get more than a handful of supporters from the Republican caucus.
Send a message to your Senators now:https://t.co/HH8ocJzk9X
— BOWL PAC (@TheBOWLPAC) July 4, 2023
In my view, when it comes to the SAFE-Plus agreement, it is time for advocates, industry, and other interested parties to unify and take the win at hand.
Having had literally thousands of conversations about the package over the last 18 months with congressional offices, there is only one of the proposed changes to the bill that I listed and believe could maintain bipartisan support to get to 60 in the Senate and 218 in the House. That is the proposed tweak to address red flags for prior cannabis convictions. If you are unaware of the effort to get this addressed, I highly suggest you review former Los Angeles, California cannabis regulator Cat Packer’s testimony, from when she participated in the recent Senate hearing on SAFE Banking.
So I write this Fourth of July op-ed to implore you, the reader, to be willing to say yes to something that falls far short of what we deserve.
The fight for cannabis freedom will continue and, given the divided nature of Congress, it will be long. Should the Senate fail to move this compromise package forward with haste ahead of the August recess, then we likely won’t even have the luxury of seriously arguing about how to achieve any congressional reform until after next year’s elections.
The pairing of a narrow criminal justice reform with industry reform is tempered, balanced and, most importantly, ready to become law.
Justin Strekal is the founding organizer of Better Organizing to Win Legalization and BOWL PAC. Prior to that, he served five years as the political director and lobbyist at NORML and has over a decade of campaign and legislative experience. (Disclosure: Strekal supports Marijuana Moment’s work with a monthly pledge on Patreon.)
Photo courtesy of Max Pixel.